We’ve collected a shortlist of blogs, books and films for those interested in digging further into the world of humanitarian aid.
Have any additional resource recommendations to share? Let us know in the comments below.
Blogs | Books | Documentaries
A Humourless Lot
“A journey through the no-man’s-land between logistics, health, and aid work.” Lots of great pieces by Michael Keizer for humanitarians and those trying to break in: top skills and traits for logisticians, why in-kind donations don’t work, perspectives on the 1 Million T-Shirts campaign, and more.
Tagline: “Just Asking that Aid Benefit the Poor.” Pithy, provocative shots across the bow of the aid industry, written by William Easterly (The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good), Laura Freschi, and guest bloggers; a project of New York University’s Development Research Institute (DRI).
Blood and Milk
“International assistance deserves and requires serious thought”. Global health consultant Alanna Shaikh has been blogging about development for almost a decade at Blood and Milk, covering health, philanthropy, entrepreneurship, marketing, anthropology, business, finance, and psychology. Great, thoughtful pieces that often get picked up by other blogs.
Superstar Yale Political Science and Economics prof Chris Blattman uses “field work and statistics to study poverty, political participation, the causes and consequences of violence, and policy in developing countries”. His widely-followed blog has great advice for undergrads, people trying to get into field work, and lots of interesting miscellanea.
Logistics Blog: United Nations World Food Programme
Updates on UNWFP work and strategy around the world.
The Road to the Horizon
Lots of great material for those breaking into (or working in) the field: aggregated posts from the best aid worker blogs, a series on “Becoming an Aid Worker”, and much more. Required reading.
American photographer/ journalist Glenna Gordon’s “scrap book of web and life trawlings – photography, music, arts, politics, and other sundry subjects” from her life in Uganda and Liberia. Photos and dispatches full of life and insight.
Tales from the Hood
“A collection of real-time stories, reflection and opinion about life inside the humanitarian aid industry… from some of the worst neighborhoods in the global village”. Good advice on helping (and not helping) Haiti, tips on landing an aid job (“they will Google you”), and much more.
Texas in Africa
Established and well-respected academic blog about “African politics, security, development, & advocacy”, written by American assistant professor of political science, Laura Seay. Seay calls it “a way to keep track of news and commentary on politics in African states and development issues. The topics discussed here reflect my research interests in state-building, security, and humanitarian and development policy”.
“If you work in aid and you are not reading this blog, you should be.” – Chris Blattman. Irreverent commentary by two NYC/ Hague lawyers on human rights issues, politics and more.
Tim Allen, Trial Justice, Zed Books, 2006
Analyses the International Criminal Court’s legal intervention in Northern Uganda and argues that much of the antipathy towards the ICC is misplaced; an excellent primer on international justice in action.
Mary B. Anderson, Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace — Or War, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1999
Groundbreaking work which challenges aid agency staff to analyze how their assistance affects conflicts. Anderson demonstrates how international assistance—even when it is effective in saving lives, alleviating suffering, and furthering sustainable development— often reinforces divisions among contending groups, and offers hopeful evidence of alternative programs with new approaches to aid.
Michael Barnett and Thomas G. Weiss (eds.), Humanitarianism in Question: Power, Politics and Ethics, Cornell University Press, 2008
Perspectives from a variety of disciplines addressing the humanitarian identity crisis (“What is humanitarianism?”), relationship to accountability, the great powers, privatization and corporate philanthropy, warlords, and the ethical evaluations that inform life-and-death decision making during and after emergencies. Foreign Policy calls it “a superb survey” and an “essential guide to the theory and politics of global humanitarianism.”
Gerald Caplan, The Betrayal of Africa, Groundwork Guides, 2008
‘How do we account for Africa’s plight, and what can we do about it?’ Caplan up-ends the common assumption that “Africa is the problem and that we in the rich world are the solution”, documenting how far more of Africa’s riches flow out to the rich world than we plough into Africa, and that the policies of rich countries, though couched in benevolent terms, are in fact responsible for many of the continent’s ills.
Romeo Dallaire, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, Random House Canada, 2009
Award-winning first-hand account of the Rwandan genocide by the man who led the failed UN mission there. Painful, revealing, and pulls no punches against the UN system and international community.
Alex de Waal, Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa, James Currey, 1997
Argues that famines are never “natural disasters,” but a result of the political failings of African governments, western donors, and the misguided policies of international relief agencies. One of the most influential books about the relief industry ever written.
David Keen, Complex Emergencies, Polity Press 2008
“If you thought the point of war was to win, this book will make you think again”. Rather than a contest or a collapse, war is analysed as a system that has significant functions and that yields complex economic, political and psychological benefits. Accessible, essential reading for students of the field.
David Kennedy, The Dark Side of Virtue: Reassessing International Humanitarianism, Princeton University Press, 2008
“Kennedy develops a checklist of the unforeseen consequences, blind spots, and biases of humanitarian work–from focusing too much on rules and too little on results to the ambiguities of waging war in the name of human rights. He explores the mix of altruism, self-doubt, self-congratulation, and simple disorientation that accompany efforts to bring humanitarian commitments to foreign settings”.
Stephen Lewis, Race Against Time: Searching for Hope in AIDS-Ravaged Africa, House of Anansi Press, 2005
Based on the 2005 Massey Lectures, Lewis “probes the appalling gap between vision and reality” in the global fight against AIDS through a “unique, personal, and often searing insider’s perspective”.
Zoe Marriage, Not Breaking the Rules, Not Playing the Game: International Assistance to Countries at War, Hurst, 2006
Through fieldwork and interviews with aid workers, Zoe Marriage argues that “appealing to a morality based on rights and principles allows aid staff to justify their operational weaknesses by blaming or discrediting others”. Political and military activity are labelled as illegitimate in the field, which limits aid organisations’ understanding of the contexts in which they work, and raises doubt about the sincerity behind the assistance.
James Orbinski, An Imperfect Offering: Humanitarian Action for the 21st Century, Double Day Canada, 2008
Through personal accounts of his experiences with MSF in Rwanda, Somalia and other humanitarian emergencies, Orbinksi explores the moral and ethical dilemmas of contemporary humanitarianism, and the importance of creating and maintaining humanitarian spaces and principles in a post-Cold War/ 9/11 world.
David Rieff, A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis, Vintage, 2002
Quoted extensively throughout this website, this is a readable and controversial account of contemporary humanitarian work that asks: Is humanitarianism a waste of hope? Rieff argues that by overreaching into advocacy, the humanitarian movement has allowed itself to be hijacked by the interests of major powers, and compromised its most powerful asset: neutrality. Must-read.
Tony Vaux, The Selfish Altruist: Relief Work in Famine and War, Earthscan, 2001
Tony Vaux draws on over 20 years experience as one of Oxfam’s leading emergency managers to explore how relief workers convert emotional responses into practical action and difficult choices – whom to help and how. How do they avoid being partial among those they are helping? Are they motivated by altruistic concern, or the power they experience or the attention they receive?
Thomas Weiss, Humanitarian Intervention, Polity Press, 2007
A strong introduction to the theory and practice of humanitarian intervention, defined as the use of military force to protect human beings. Weiss uses case studies to examine the political, ethical, legal, strategic, economic, and operational dimensions of intervention, as well as highlighting key debates and controversies.
Nicholas J. Wheeler, Saving Strangers: Humanitarian Intervention in International Society, Oxford: OUP, 2000
An excellent discussion of specific military interventions with humanitarian motivations; compares the international response to cases of humanitarian intervention in the cold war and post-cold war periods, drawing on many specific examples.
Ghosts of Rwanda: PBS Frontline
Released on the 10th anniversary of the 1994 genocide, Ghosts of Rwanda is the definitive account of the genocide and the key-decision makers who played roles in it, including top government officials, diplomats, soldiers, and survivors of the slaughter. Accompanied by a detailed educational website.
The Hunger Business
Takes a critical look at the international emergency aid industry and explores whether well-intentioned aid operations, from Biafra to Band Aid and beyond have inadvertently caused more suffering than they have alleviated.
The story of child soldiers abducted into the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army, as documented by three wide-eyed American teenagers visiting the country for the first time. After its initial release in 2004, the film became a viral and grassroots sensation, sparking a global youth movement against the use of child soldiers.
Lost in Liberia
30-year-old Irish Leila wants to put her ideals to the test by registering to a training course at the Red Cross in Geneva/Switzerland. On mission in Liberia, she is confronted with post-war traumas and the task to reunite children, some of them former child soldiers, with their families.
The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court
The Reckoning follows ICC Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo and his team for 3 years across 4 continents, through the early casework and controversies of the young international court.
Rwanda: in Search of Hope
A group of Canadian teachers and community workers travel to Rwanda to try and understand what happened and what can be done to help the half-million orphans left behind.
Shake Hands with the Devil
Documentary following Gen. Romeo Dallaire on his first return visit to Rwanda after the genocide.
Surviving the Tsunami: Stories of Hope
Produced by the IFRC and Thomas Reuteurs Foundation, this interactive multimedia website documents stories of hope and survival from the 2005 disaster.
The Third Wave
Earnest documentary following four independent volunteers with little money or experience in tsunami-ravaged Sri Lanka. They meet up at the Colombo airport by fate, rent a van, fill it with supplies and start driving down the coast to see where they can help.
Triage: Dr. James Orbinski’s Humanitarian Dilemma
Documentary following MSF President James Orbinski Orbinski as he returns to Somalia, the first place he was posted with MSF in 1992; then to Rwanda, where he was MSF Head of Mission during the 1994 genocide; and finally to Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, where “humanitarian dreams go to die”.
Tsepong: A Clinic Called Hope
Follows a small group of Canadian health care workers who travel to a remote corner of Lesotho to set up one of the country’s first HIV/AIDS clinics, and distribute life-saving antiretroviral drugs (ARVs).
“For me, the strength of photography lies in its ability to evoke a sense of humanity. If war is an attempt to negate humanity, then photography can be perceived as the opposite of war and if it is used well it can be a powerful ingredient in the antidote to war” – James Nachtwey. A film about American war photographer James Nachtwey, his motivations, fears and daily routines as a war photographer. Director Christian Frei followed Nachtwey for two years into the wars in Indonesia, Kosovo, and Palestine to create one of the most insightful documentaries about media and conflict ever made.